Drone research reaps agricultural rewards

By in News

It’s not a bird or a plane and it certainly isn’t Superman, but those with a keen eye might notice an unusual presence hovering over farmers’ fields in the future.

Gordon Gray, a University of Saskatchewan plant sciences professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, has been working as principal researcher alongside a team of scientists to study the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a tool for measuring the effect that different kinds of stresses can have on crops. Referring to the devices as a “pair of eyes in the sky,” Gray wrote in an email to the Sheaf that the future for UAV use in agriculture is looking bright.

“We predict that in [the] near future, more and more farmers will use UAVs for scouting their fields,” Gray said. “There are many situations where real-time information on plant health generated by the use of UAVs could be used to design crops and crop management systems that minimize negative environmental impacts while maximizing efficiency of input utilization.”

This research was made possible thanks to a partnership with Draganfly Innovations Inc., a Saskatoon-based company specializing in UAV technologies which approached Gray in February 2014 about exploring the use of their machines in crops-related studies. Often associated with the military, UAVs have in recent years seen a rapid increase in use in a wide variety of areas — even web giant Amazon famously announced in 2014 that it is pursuing drones as a means of securing same-day delivery for its customers in major markets.

While his research may not sound as enticing as same-day shipping, Gray sees viable economic growth in the use of drones for farming purposes.

Drone-Photo-Vladimir-Pajic“The ability to make more efficient decisions on a field-level scale as to when and where to schedule inputs has economic and environmental benefits to both the grower and consumer,” Gray said. “We hope our findings assist potential users of UAV acquired imagery on proper techniques and design for determining effects of stresses on their crops and subsequent management.”

Studying a sampling of crops which included oats, wheat, potatoes, lentils and dry beans, Gray and his team outfitted their UAVs with specialized multispectral camera equipment which would allow them to capture images from different wavelengths of light. These photographs are then used to calculate a value known as the normalized difference vegetation index, providing researchers with enough information to assess the overall state of plant health.

“We covered a wide range of abiotic and biotic stresses, such as effects of drought on potatoes, herbicides on wheat and lentils, different rates of nitrogen in oats, common bacterial blight on dry beans and potato beetle on potatoes,” Gray said.

With a large sampling of research materials, Gray aims for his work to have a broad impact on agriculture provincially and beyond.

“The [Crop Development Centre] at the U of S is internationally recognized for its strong plant breeding programs in cereals and pulses,” Gray said. “We hope that breeders will consider adopting this platform in their programs, ultimately providing superior material for producers both in Saskatchewan and worldwide.”

Despite the potential for the technology, Gray did acknowledge some possible drawbacks to the use of drones. Citing issues such as poor weather making drone flight more difficult, the ability to access or interpret data at a production level and the “astounding” amount of data collected that can be collected during a single flight, Gray said that there remain issues to be resolved before the public will start seeing swarms of UAVs buzzing overhead.

“Many questions need to be answered before UAVs become a part of everyday life for producers,” Gray said. “The interpretation of aerial acquired imagery data is complex and although it can be reliably acquired using a UAV, its usefulness at the grower level will require further study.”

Since a license from Transport Canada is required in order to fly a commercial drone, operators from Draganfly aided Gray as necessary. However, with Steve Shirtliffe from the department of plant sciences and a group of graduate students taking steps toward earning their own licenses, Gray seemed hopeful that drone-related research may take off in the coming months.

“We believe that a variety of projects will soon start ‘flying’ from the U of S.”

Photo: Vladimir Pajic